Doorstep Postings: Focus-testing a ghetto concept with an outgoing MPP from the NDP

This is the 11th in a series of opinion columns on the 2022 Ontario provincial election, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

Before every election, there are one or two moments that telegraph what kind of electoral affair it’s going to be. 

Four years ago, we had then Ontario Liberal campaign chair David Herle calling soon-to-be-premier Doug Ford “a bit of a dick” on TV, to a reaction of widespread groans and eye-rolls—followed by an apology from the man who said it.

Herle might have been right, but the public was more interested in tossing the Liberals out. As this encounter went, so did the election: the left attacked Ford, and he won despite himself.

So, if the past few months are any indication, the summary of this campaign will be this: “Tories trigger lefties, knock them off-message, win second term.”

We saw this play out back during January’s massive snowstorm, where the premier drove around Toronto digging out confused and bemused drivers—while critics screamed at him for bringing his director of media relations along for the ride, seeking press attention, and not doing his actual job.

Again, voters mostly shrugged and went back to dealing with COVID and yet another day of the kids being home from school. 

But as Beaches-East York MPP Rima Berns McGown found out for herself this week, this narrative is still being focus-tested and carefully calibrated: to trigger those who are already primed to care, and to confuse everyone else.

Well, the Ontario PCs know exactly what kind of non-troversy is going to upset their opponents. In this case, the unfortunately-numbered Bill 88, the Working for Workers Act, was criticized by Berns-McGown for keeping gig workers from receiving the protection of the Emergency Services Act.

(Doorstep Posting readers might recall the significance of the number 88 from last year’s freak-out over the character count of tweets from Erin O’Toole.)

Berns-McGown—who won’t be seeking re-election in June—claimed that the bill creates a “gig ghetto,” and explained the Jewish origins of the word. But she noted a weird moment when government house leader Paul Calandra relayed instructions to his troops, right before they started invoking the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. 

While she’s demanded an apology from the PCs, and accused them of twisting her words in an antisemitic way, the truth is probably a lot more cynical: Ford Nation was waiting for someone to use a choice piece of charged language around the bill—or its number—and they had a couple of canned responses handy. They also knew the situation would devolve into a back-and-forth over which party is more antisemitic, getting way off track from the bill they were supposed to be talking about.

Note the Conservatives didn’t get into the possible connotations of other racial associations with the word “ghetto.” If they had, they’d have to contend with the fact that Berns-McGown, who had three Ashkenazi Jewish grandparents and one who was a South African of mixed race, is a member of the Ontario NDP Black Caucus.

In an academic paper published in 2016, under the title “Purity in Danger,” she explains her own particular racial identity as something “I have always known somehow, in a way that I couldn’t explain but that seemed linked to my deep ancestral connection to South Africa.”

Leaving aside these multi-various identity politics for a moment, we might notice a temperamental difference in how the left and the right play politics in Canada: the left likes to draw a circle with the good, caring people inside and the mean, callous people outside—and the right likes to drive wedges into supposedly harmonious consensuses. 

You, the average voter worried about everyday concerns, aren’t paying attention to this sort of thing. But your brain is noticing, albeit subconsciously. And soon, it’ll be impossible to ignore. 

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.